In Post-Suburbia, ‘The Best Surprise Is No Surprise'--With a Twist.

Norman Klein, a professor of critical studies at the California Institute of the Arts, is the author of "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory."

Since the great railroad boom of 1885, Los Angeles has been promoted as the city of the “garden suburb.” Now, more than 100 years later, it is time to take stock of what this has brought. A few myths should be dispelled. The suburb is no longer free of rush-hour traffic, pollution, urban density or mixed classes and races. Nor is it simply a bedroom community. The roots may be suburban. Many roads still follow the paths of former orchards. The industrial streets are not as scarred as in older cities. Less rust, more stucco.

But the changes are immense. The postwar threads of light industry have matured, moving far beyond warehouses along the freeways. Suburbs are now hubs for exports, film production, software, aerospace. This is a global trend toward the sprawling, digitized corporation. Across the San Fernando Valley are belts of high-rises with their own banking centers, and an industrial job base with slums for cheap labor nearby. In short, all the mess we associate with the downtown center they were designed to erase from memory.

The dream of the bucolic suburb has been distorted. It is now the era of the metropolitan suburb. The original green spaces are ravaged. The gulf between rich and poor widens. Suburban slums grow in Pacoima, Pomona, San Bernardino, Reseda, Van Nuys, Northridge, Santa Ana. At the same time, enclaved communities emerge close to poor neighborhoods. South Pasadena has literally walled away some of El Sereno. In the San Fernando Valley, Victory Boulevard has become, for many, the street below which they shall not pass; a Hadrian’s Wall is being assembled through real-estate pricing, as well as myths and urban paranoia.

There are “Asian” cities in the San Gabriel Valley, now renamed “China Valley.” Businesses centered in the city of Santa Clarita are spearheading an expansion toward Ventura County that could add up to 100,000 more people within a decade, turning what remains of old orchards and the battered, historic town of Fillmore into new urban sprawl.


The ethnic complexity of suburbs is dense. Along Ventura Boulevard, out in Tarzana, beyond what used to be walnut farms and movie-star ranches, are a Glatt Kosher restaurant, a sushi bar and an Iranian grill, one adjacent to the other, as if in Hollywood. Ventura Boulevard may be the most ethnically mixed business street in Southern California.

There are many such “post-suburban” ironies. But the one that stands out is that these problems have become globally important, essential for urban studies throughout the world. Terms such as “privatization,” “themed spaces,” “Disneyfication” and “enclaving” appear in European as well as U.S. journals. The new paradigm for urban life may indeed be a kind of dense suburb, with a lot of eye candy in the shopping mall, stadium seating in the multiplex, latte at the Starbucks, Barnes & Noble not far from Borders, near an Italian food chain, a nest for global franchise businesses.

Wherever tourism has expanded, whether in Vienna or Santa Monica, a fussy glow, both urban and suburban, has taken over the storefronts. The malls, like medieval cities, have broken out of their walls and spilled into the streets. Certainly, that is what happened in Burbank: The streets around Palm and San Fernando outpaced the Media City mall and literally surrounded it. Is Old Pasadena a mall without a roof? It contains essentially the same range of shops that fancy malls do. It is a “themed” space. Any stretch of buildings with historic continuity can be themed, i.e., given a suburban spin. That means Times Square in Manhattan, Piccadilly Circus in London and certainly downtown Los Angeles along Figueroa Boulevard, all have their share of advanced suburban amenities.

But what is the sum of the metropolitan suburb? Why is it so important today? What risks does it portend? With the shrinking of national governments, here and in Europe, services to cities have been underfinanced. In order to build a tax base, virtually every city is turning to themed spaces. The cost of leases jump. Older businesses cannot pay. Large franchise companies move in.

So, we live in a world in which we all become tourists in our neighborhoods. We relocate the same 10 shops, or facsimiles of places like Gap, Jamba Juice, Panda Express, Banana Republic, Blockbuster, Disney, Barnes & Noble, Burger King and Hard Rock Cafe. Many of the same names--or themes--reappear from one end of the country to another. Why? Public works cannot be funded easily, not parks, not even large symphony halls. Privatization means mall-like promotion of any historic street that can be found.

Calabasas apparently will model its new mall on the alpine town of Como in Italy and add some local touches by referring to the old ranching street nearby. So, we will have an Italian alpine, San Fernando Valley, semiarid ranchero mall with a Sundance movie complex, and the 10 franchises we can expect to find.

The metropolitan suburb is to tourism what monasteries were to pilgrims searching for pieces of the cross. As the old Howard Johnson napkins used to say, “The best surprise is no surprise"--but with a small twist. When asked why his city’s new mall borrowed from Como, the Calabasas city manager said the tile roofs were black instead of red. Sienna meets Zorro.

What precisely should we complain about? This is not Moscow, only with more regularized dosages of latte. The books available, and other cultural services, will increase even in edge cities. Of course, the metropolitan suburb requires institutions that implicitly restrict; they are genteel spaces, more like cities in 1840 than the hubbub of 1900. Our class structure has widened; we need citywalks to preserve our somewhat feudalized way of life (more dispersed political systems, more overlapping corporate power). Our industries have been globalized. Business marriages between media and heavy industry increase. So why shouldn’t our cities look like the forms of capitalism that run our culture? The age of master-planned federal public works seems to be over. Consumerism has boxed the compass and billed it to our MasterCard.


From Orange County to the upper San Fernando Valley, old aerospace acreage is being converted into media centers for film, TV and software. Corporate power has become cybernetic: A world dominated more by feedback and user-friendly environments than by direct policing. We can be policed by the software itself.

But we must be alert to what the metropolitan suburb cannot fix and what it is fomenting. The older industrial parts of the cities will remain belts of poverty. The metropolitan suburb tends to ideologically ignore these slums, even when they are practically next door.

It is a world of facades and eye candy, soothing in many ways, filled with services unavailable 20 years ago. But what is the cost of privatization on public policies? Can we see how fragile and misleading this metropolitan suburb is? Do we honestly imagine the matured suburb will remove our social problems, simply because they are hidden by landscaping inside Italianate malls?

We may find soon enough that we have been asleep at the wheel. The traffic apocalypse that these denser metro suburbs cause will grow geometrically over the next decade. Some “suburbs” may experience up to 13-hour rush hours. The shelf life for neglected dingbat architecture, circa 1960, may be far shorter than what slum neglect did to solid craftsman housing, circa 1915. We may find that maturing suburbs have to be rebuilt every 40 years, that within the next decade or so, the bill will come due.


The future promises more pedestrian-friendly environments modeled on theme-park mall variations of real city streets. They will have to be policed intensively, or at least have complex surveillance, not to prevent crime necessarily, but rather to shield us from what may be a few blocks away. We are entering a civilization that is expert at giving us a media spin that vaguely resembles the facts. Its strength is that it goes well with the flow of programming. It is a culture that has to hide a great deal to keep us happy enough to shop.

This is not the worst of all possible worlds, but neither is it as splendid as we imagine. It will alter the older urban spaces as much as the suburbs. It will be greener and have better movie screens. But landscaping will not be enough.

As a region, we must begin to plan honestly for the metro suburban future, stop worrying about the failed subway system and design our infrastructure properly--not forget about the older industrial parts of the city, not pretend that a metropolitan suburb is the utopia older cities were not. It is simply the world economy in miniature: the same virtues, the same mess.